The Robots Have Come For Our Crosswords!

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Well, it was bound to happen. We’ve seen it in chess, and Go, and Scrabble. Now, crosswords are the latest pastime to fall to the inevitable machine takeover of civilization.

Okay, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here. Robots aren’t snatching crossword puzzles out of peoples’ hands and solving them, after all.

But we have reached a peculiar milestone in AI and crossword history: a computer program won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Sorta.

Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving creation of Matt Ginsberg, was able to balance the occasional solving mistake with a blistering solving speed in order to overtake any human competitors in its total tournament score.

But not by much. Former ACPT champion Erik Agard was only 15 points behind Dr. Fill on the seven tournament puzzles. Dr. Fill then went on to solve the championship puzzle in 49 seconds (while actual winner Tyler Hinman did so in three minutes).

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But, as it turns out, this isn’t the old Dr. Fill that has been competing in the ACPT for years. No, this year’s Dr. Fill is a curious hybrid of the original programming and a neural network known as the Berkeley Crossword Solver.

And this Frankenstein’s monster of puzzle-solving machinery is what toppled the competition in the first-ever virtual edition of the tournament.

According to an article on Slate:

An alliance came naturally. Ginsberg and the Berkeley crew started working together just two weeks before the tournament, plugging the latter system into the former, and the centaur program finally ran with just days to go.

The result, hastily constructed though it was, was a marvel, its pieces working hand in glove to solve crosswords. Ginsberg’s system handled the grid and the colder, mathematical side of things, searching and placing answers, while the Berkeley team’s system unriddled the hazier, “human” side of the language of the clues, crosswords’ music.

You know, it’s kind of reassuring that it took TWO computer programs working in tandem to best the top puzzle solvers.

Also, it’s not like Dr. Fill can actually win a tournament. Not until it can hold a marker and solve in person in front of everybody while Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg crack wise about it, at least.

It does make next year’s tournament more intriguing. Will Dr. Fill perform as well “in person”? Or will the master cruciverbalists retake the title?

And hey, if anyone is building a body for Dr. Fill, please stop. Stop, rewatch every sci-fi movie about AI and robots, and then rethink your life choices.


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The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Returns This Weekend!

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Hello fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

Normally, this reminder post would go up on Friday, but since the deadline to register to participate in this year’s virtual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is noon tomorrow, we’re posting a day early.

Yes, the 43rd edition of the ACPT — jokingly referred to as the Nerd Olympics — has gone online this year (though some folks are still attending in person). But it’s not just the competition puzzles! Prizes, panels, and more are planned across the weekend.

A full slate of events has been scheduled for Friday through Sunday, including the Merl Reagle Award, puzzle workshops, trivia and games, and the live-solving finals, including commentary from Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg!

But who is constructing this year’s puzzles, you ask? A fine question.

Constructors Sam Ezersky, Emily Carroll, Patrick Berry, Kevin Der, Lynn Lempel, Mike Shenk, Ruth Bloomfield Margolin, and Robyn Weintraub are all contributing puzzles to this year’s tournament.

You can click here to register and visit the ACPT website for full details!

Will you be competing, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A Crossword Roundup: 10,000 Days of Shortz, The Crossword Mysteries, and ACPT!

Hello crossword fans! In today’s post I just wanted to offer a quick little roundup of crossword-related items and stories, so I’ve got three for you today.

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Firstly, I’d like to congratulate Will Shortz on editing his 10,000th crossword! (Approximately. It’s actually his 10,000th day as editor, which is still a very impressive number!)

Friend of the blog Deb Amlen interviewed Will to mark the occasion, and it offers a nice little snapshot of Will’s career as editor of The New York Times crossword, as well as some insight into the man behind the puzzle.

There are also some intriguing stats included in the interview. This one caught my eye:

The Times is publishing more teen constructors than ever before. In the whole history of the Times Crossword up to me, only six teenagers are known to have had crosswords in the paper. I’ve published 46 teens so far, with two more coming up this month.

46 teens! That’s amazing.

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Of course, the part that’s getting a lot of traction online is this quote: “I read all but one of the daily crossword blogs”

Now, I hesitate to bring this part up, because there’s virtually no way to discuss it without sounding like I’m picking a side. It’s not hard to deduce what daily blog Will is referring to here — plenty of others have made the connection already — and the presumed writer of that blog responded to the comment in typically salty fashion, as did his many fans and readers.

I choose not to wade into that particularly turbulent Internet space, which is why I’m not naming names or providing links. If you are that interested, it’s not hard to find them.

But I DO want to say that there are plenty of terrific crossword blogs out there, big and small, that all add to the daily crossword discussion in important ways. Some are more critical than others. Some are acerbic to the point of being fairly unpleasant to read regularly. But there’s definitely a blog out there about the Times daily crossword for you.

In any case, congratulations to Will Shortz on 10,000 days as the most recognizable name in crosswords. Other than Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, Bobby Orr, Mel Ott, Rip Torn, Oona Chaplin…

Anyway, congrats on being A recognizable name in crosswords. =)

Speaking of recognizable names and crosswords, the fifth Crossword Mysteries movie will be premiering Sunday night, April 11th, at 8 PM Eastern! It is entitled Riddle Me Dead, and here’s the plot synopsis:

Tess gets invited to be part of a popular game show, but when the host is unexpectedly murdered, she and Detective Logan O’Connor try to discover who was behind it all.

Not only that, but Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is running a Crossword Mysteries marathon all day, starting at noon, so you can catch up on all things Tess Harper and Logan O’Connor before the newest entry in the series debuts that night!

Of course, you could also just read the four posts about the movies that I’ve written for the blog here, here, here, and here. Just saying.

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Finally, I’ll cap off this trifecta of crossword-related notes by reminding you that registration is open for this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament! The tournament is running from April 23rd through the 25th, complete with all sorts of events!

The tournament has gone virtual this year, so if you’ve ever thought about entering the tournament and testing your puzzly skills, this is the perfect opportunity for you. The deadline to register is Friday, April 23rd, noon Eastern.

There are sample puzzles to try out as well!

Will you be attending ACPT this year, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or tuning in for the latest Crossword Mysteries film? What do you think of 10,000 days of Will Shortz-edited NYT crosswords? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Upcoming Puzzle Events! The Spring Themeless League, Plus ACPT Going Virtual!

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Most years, the puzzle event season starts with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in late March/early April, but 2021 is different. We already had the Boswords Winter Wondersolve event last month, and there are plenty of exciting puzzle events on the horizon!

Did you know that there’s still time to sign up for the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League? It starts Monday night, and you should check it out!

Last year, Boswords launched the Fall Themeless League, a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you completed the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging.

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The Spring Themeless League follows the same format. Every Monday in March and April, a themeless puzzle awaits you!

Not only is there some serious talent among the constructors — Brooke Husic, Aimee Lucido, Rachel Fabi, Patti Varol, Ryan McCarty, Kevin Der, Peter Wentz, Ricky Cruz, and the duo of Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl — but there’s a great community of solvers out there participating in after-puzzle chats and Twitch streams.

The Fall Themeless League gave me a new appreciation for what themeless crosswords are capable of, and I’m happy to be signed up for the Spring edition!

The Spring Themeless League will conclude with the championship puzzle on April 26th, which will make for a busy few days of puzzle solving, since another puzzle event is set for that very weekend!

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Yes, you might’ve heard that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be hosted online this year.

The 43rd annual edition of the granddaddy of all crossword tournaments will take place April 23rd through the 25th. We’re awaiting further details, but hopefully we’ll know more soon!

So there you go, the next two months of puzzles all planned and set for you, with more to come this summer.

Will you be participating in either the Spring Themeless League or ACPT’s virtual event this year, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the 2021 Winter Wondersolve Puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Winter Wondersolve event a few weeks ago. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in previous Boswords-hosted events — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


Practice Puzzle: Spring Forward by John Lieb

Perennial Boswords warmup puzzle master Mr. Lieb delivers perfect warmup material with this 15x puzzle. The theme entries depict a spring thaw, as the answer phrases progress from FREEZE to COOL to WARM to MELT across the grid.

The theme itself not only fits the winter gimmick, but also feels like shaking off any cobwebs or nerves the solver may have and just getting to work. Mix that with some playful cluing and vocabulary, and you’ve got a terrific puzzle to kickstart solvers’ brains into motion.

Interesting grid entries included VAMOOSE, KEYNOTE, and OH HENRY, and my favorite clue was “Discontinued candy bar too old to have been named for Hank Aaron” for OH HENRY.

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[Image courtesy of Knithacker.]

Puzzle 1: Don’t Forget Your Outerwear! by Sophie Maymudes

The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a 16×17 puzzle that mixed some fun longer entries with a tightly constructed grid that’ll have you looking “out” for the theme answers.

In this case, winter clothing items like SCARF, GLOVES, and COAT were broken up so that half of each word was on the end of a given row. For instance, answers like GLOMS ONTO and SOLVES had GLO VES at the beginning and end. Because they’re “outer” wear! This fun visual gag offered a nice change of pace from traditional themed puzzles, while remaining accessible for less experienced solvers.

As Boswords puzzles tend not to be as difficult as those at Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500, this was the ideal representation of a Boswords Puzzle #1.

Interesting grid entries included AMIIBO, TOUR BUS, ARE YOU NUTS, and PAPA SMURF, and my favorite clue was either “Affliction for the head or the heart” for ACHE or “Initials with which kids interrupt parents’ honeymoon stories, maybe” for TMI.

Puzzle 2: It’s Not THAT Cold! by Jessie Bullock and Ross Trudeau

Puzzle #2 was only a half-step or so tougher than Puzzle #1, remaining very solver friendly while still peppered with some great vocabulary. This 18x puzzle was well-constructed and had brilliant flow between the across and down entries, offering very little crosswordese for such a densely-packed grid.

The theme was all about punning in the cold, as each themed entry was clued as “Cold something?,” like “Cold war?” for SNOWBALL FIGHT or “Cold air?” for CHRISTMAS CAROL. All in all, a very fun solve.

Interesting grid entries included PANDORA, TLAIB, LAIKA, MUESLIX, and appropriately enough, XWORD, and my favorite clue was either “Underexposed film, perhaps” for INDIE or “Labor party?” for DOULA.

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[Image courtesy of The Whole World is a Playground.]

Puzzle 3: The Arctic Circles by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Puzzle #3 continued to ratchet up the difficulty, but again, solving remained fair and welcoming to newer tournament competitors and less-experienced solvers. This was the toughest so far, but nothing approaching the levels of the dreaded Puzzle #5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, for instance.

This 18×17 puzzle featured Across entries that contained the letters IF, but solvers had to ignore them in the Down entries that crossed those letters. As explained by the revealer WHITE OUT CONDITIONS, this blizzard had you mentally “white out” those “conditions” and read the newly revised Down entry.

I could easily see this hook tripping up new solvers, but hey, what is puzzle-solving if not removing all the IFs and seeing what’s left?

Interesting grid entries included CABANA, TOP TEN, NO FUSS, and ARISTOCATS, and my favorite clue was “Exclamation with a Kermit flail” for YAY. It’s rare that you can hear an answer as you read the clue, but that’s definitely the case here.

Puzzle 4 by Joon Pahk

The tournament concludes with the toughest puzzle of the day, a 15x themeless grid that still managed to sneak in some wintry entries alongside a few devious crossings.

Two sets of clues were offered for the final puzzle — FLURRY clues on the easier side and BLIZZARD clues on the tougher side of the spectrum — but both offered their fair share of challenges for solvers of all skill levels.

One particular crossing in the upper-left section of the grid had me stumped for a while, as the Down answer MELD was clued with Mah-jongg and canasta references (neither of which I play) and I was unfamiliar with the crossing phrase IN A PET. I would have guessed correctly, but it definitely slowed down my time.

Interesting grid entries included GEYSER, MIDSCALE, SESTET, I TONYA, E-SPORTS, CAROUSE, and LOOSE CANNON. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

FLURRY clues:

  • “Plot that’s rarely nefarious” for GRAPH
  • “Sticks around Aspen?” for SKI POLES
  • “Shake your hand?” for WAVE

BLIZZARD clues:

  • “Drip’s slower relative” for COLD BREW
  • “Team who negotiates a lot?” for VALETS
  • “Necessities for cross-country travel” for SKI POLES
  • “Light or sound, e.g.” for WAVE

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Overall, I quite enjoyed the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s Winter Wondersolve. The gradual rise in difficulty kept me interested and the fun wintry themes all felt different enough for the entire experience to feel crisp and engaging.

The themeless puzzle also felt like a strong refresher for themeless solving in general, as Boswords has their Spring Themeless League coming up soon!

Boswords has truly become the perfect host for events to introduce solvers to tournament-style puzzling, making up for difficulty with accessibility, playfulness, and straight-up solid grid construction.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the event, building on the strong continuity of virtual events established last year by the Boswords tournament and the Fall Themeless League. A hearty tip-of-the-hat to the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!

And I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next.


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Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

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So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

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Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

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The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

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Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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